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ON THE GRAPE TRAIL
France - a Great Visit.....

October & November, 2011...

l'Hermitage

Most grape harvests in the Northern Hemisphere terminate sometime in October as does the fresh grape season at Preston Hardware.  While Sam Giannetti and the guys get the warehouse back to normal, it is a good time to head to France and conduct some (‘ahem) research.

Continental Europe during the Fall is a great place to visit.  Traffic is way down, reservations generally not needed and the weather is usually good for travel.  November does bring some closures of hotels in smaller centres or rural areas but for the most part accommodation is much easier to come by and less expensive than during the warmer weather.

As long as you keep your eye on the weather (use web sites) and keep mobile, you can experience the best the area has to offer under good conditions.

An example - after being based in Avignon for three days based and exploring the surrounding countryside, we decided to stay in the area for a few more days, but changed our minds when the Meteo France website predicted heavy rains for the period.  A half-day’s drive north got us to the sunny French Alps where we enjoyed the towns and mountains to ourselves.

Using high speed trains (over long distances) and rented cars give you great flexibility at a time of year when weather can negatively impact on your journey.

Back in the 60's, you had to rely on a two-day-old Herald Tribune published in Paris for your information and  few of my generation had the scratch to afford rental cars.  Today the information highways and transportation systems give the visitor a lot of potential flexibility and speedy access.

One thing that hasn't changed for the better is the gentrification of some historical locations.  caves in cote de brouillyI lamented in a 2010 piece on Bordeaux, that the town of St. Emilion wasn't much of a real town anymore.  Today it gets over a million visitors and it is designated a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE.

The downside to this is that the tax base has been seriously compromised.  Economic forces have effectively purged the populace of inhabitants and businesses that normally contribute to the town's financial well-being. The town is in debt $3,500 CDN per each of the 2000 or so citizens.  The mayor and council have had to sell off local monuments to overcome this financial hardship.  The rumour  that 1/3 of the Bordeaux properties are for sale due to succession issues means that the hot real estate deals may not all be in Florida and Arizona.

What follows are some thoughts from the road by Region. 

Lyon and Beaujolais

Beaujolais is a wine that I have generally forgotten about over the years as there have been better wines on the market at that price point. Even the decline of Beaujolais Nouveau as an entity has shown a consumer fatigue for the over-hyped beverage.  This trip was a revelation.  It didn't hurt that 2009 and 2010 were good vintages for Beaujolais but other forces are also at work.

Place centrale in Lyon

Reduction of yield, better soil management, some use of indigenous yeasts, and a return to more traditional fermentation techniques have all helped this area elevate the quality, especially in the Cru categories.  This is good news because the wine is a versatile ‘quaffer’ that goes with many foods.

Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly were the regions I focused on because of my relative ignorance of these Crus.  gamay grapesThe thing that distinguishes these AC's over the others in Beaujolais is their ability to use other grapes besides Gamay.  Pinot Noir and some whites are legally used to add some complexity and lift to these wines.  My favourite was CHATEAU THIVAN COTE DE BROUILLY grown on the granite and schist slopes of Mont Brouilly.   Good concentration and some finesse (contributed by a little Chardonnay) to the wine.

Lyon is a gastronomic paradise with many traditional and good restaurants in a very walk-able city.

Brasserie Georges, where you can sample many regional delights, is an example of Old Europe Art Deco and has been around since 1836.  They brew their own beer and have a table capacity of over 500 people.  This is a must visit in Lyon not only for the food which is solid but for the Old World experience.   This is also the place to try Beaujolais that you can't get at home.

Rhone Valley

Lyon's southern backyard is the Northern Rhone Valley, specifically the Cote Rotie and Condrieu.  The steep slopes support terraced Syrah and Viognier and many growers have just 3 or 4 hectares of hand tended vines to manage.  crozes hermitageHeading south along the river strip to St. Joseph, Cornas, Hermitage and Crozes Hermitage, the white Roussane and Marasanne grapes join the fray.

Tain and Tournon on opposite sides of the river are good spots to centre yourself in this region.  Chapoutier is a smart winery stop to learn more about the region from some of the most informed tasting room staff I have ever encountered.  The winery, established in 1808, produces wine from the whole Rhone region as well as Australia.

South of this area, the Rhone Valley opens up and for me the Southern Rhone starts at Valence.  Vineyards become larger, the climate becomes warmer and you get that brightness in the air that artists have sought for years to replicate on canvas.

Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Chateauneuf de Pape and many other centres make up the big mix of the environs.

Gigondas is a beautiful village perched above the valley as you ascend the beautiful Dentelles de Montmirail mountains.  This area is the place for Grenache in its best fruity and rich form.  Virtually all the towns and villages in this region are important wine centres.  The most scenic being Cairanne, Vinsobres, Rasteau, Beaumes de Venise and Chateauneuf  du Pape.  But, if you want to stay where the Popes did, bring lots of money.

You can spend big bucks anywhere in the region but there is lots of good wine and accommodation in the low to medium price range also.  The diversity of the wines reflects the fact that there are 13 permitted varieties which give the winemakers much scope and flexibility.

Provence

The southern Rhone area merges into Provence to the east and we headed into the Cotes du Laberon wine district, but in this case, not for the wine.  gigondasAfter reading British author Peter Mayle's books on this region - “A Year in Provence” and “A Good Year” - and seeing the TV series and the movie, we wanted to see the motivation for his exploits.  Mayle has written countless other books on the region and other varied topics. This area is quiet, relatively secluded with a great climate and natural scenery.

Mayle originally located in Menerbes but now lives in Lourmarin in the department Vancluse.  Apparently Mayle had problems starting his first book due to the area's distractions.  I can appreciate that and will drink to that, which is obviously one of the distractions.

Savoie (French Alps)

SavoieThis alpine area close to many world class ski resorts has vineyards that are placed in sunny aspects with mountain cold modified by large picturesque deep lakes.

Aix les Bains, a spa town, is in the centre of the region which is comprised of small growers producing mostly white wine from varieties that you have never heard about.  Apart from a credible Pinot Noir that I tasted, the rest of the local wine ranged from very average to awful.  I checked various French wine sources on the quality issue and found that the area is lacking, shall we say, in “wine reputation”. Which goes to prove that after along day on the slopes, skiers and boarders will drink anything.  Go for the scenery and sliding…

Some  Other Observations

The question I'm probably asked most about travel destinations is the “price”.  cotes du rhoneIn today's world prices are a lot more equal internationally across the board than they used to be.  You will find great exceptions in large centres and we all know who the usual suspects are.

Paris is always touted as one of those “suspects” but I disagree.  Is there a city anywhere that has as much to see and do for free or for a reasonable price?  There are so many hotels and restaurants that you will always find your price point.  The Metro is as good a system as anywhere and it is cheap and easy to get around.

In a Wine Bistro just off of the Boulevard St Michel, boul st. michelmy wife and I had the lunch special.  Two big servings of delicious potage de legumes, two of the best roast ham we have ever had with potatoes dauphin and fresh French beans with mustard cream sauce.  Lunch also included two glasses of exceptional Gamay from Touraine and of course fresh baguette.  The price with everything included was $36.00 (Canadian)

A week later I was in Ottawa dining at a medium priced restaurant that had been in business for about 25 years.  Lunch was a seafood stir fry and two beers.   The stir fry was one of those pre-packaged meals that lacked taste and any nuance.  The beer was good; the food awful. The price with tip and taxes (for just me) was the same - $36.00.

In short, the people in the Left Bank bistro were passionate about food and wine. The chefs came out and asked the customers how they liked the meal.  st. michelIt was obviously a neighbourhood place where everybody knew each other.  We even met a dog holding fort underneath the next table.

Although the difference in price is significant – two meals versus one in this case- it is the quality issue that is most substantial.  One often has to travel sometimes to get exactly what they want in any price range.


Mac has also been revisiting eastern Australia in February and March; he will share his insights on Australian living and eating and, of course, on  wine growing in the regions this Spring harvest season... stay tuned.


mac with baguette

In vino veritas...

Mac MacDonald
November, 2011

(updated 2012-03-13)

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